Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Badger in the Badger State

Dog sledding yesterday on our six inches of snow, we were lucky to see something rare. In December other years, we have come across lots of deer, big bucks, fishers, fox, coyotes, owls and lots of grouse, but there is always something new. The lead dog even caught a grouse once in her mouth at full tilt and kept running. Finally, after a mile or so, she got tired of the feathers and dropped it.

This time, our young lead dog Mickey McMuffin was running along on a narrow trail at a pretty good clip when she dodged to the left. Her mom, Lucy, tugged her back on the trail without missing a beat. A couple seconds later the sled caught up to the same spot and I saw what at first looked like a porcupine on the side of the trail. I slowed as it was backing out of the hole it had dug and looked up at me with a "what are you lookin' at" look on its face. At a distance of six feet away, that look was a bit of a surprise! I am glad I was still moving. After being passed by eight dogs and a musher at high speeds most animals can't get away fast enough. This guy was telling me to get off his trail and quit bothering him. The pattern of his black and white face was unmistakably Bucky Badger! Whoever drew the likeness of a badger for UW-Madison got it just right. His attitude and the look on his face were exactly what I would expect. His body was low and flat, appeared to be between 25 and 40 pounds and was covered in sand and snow. I quickly advanced another 30 feet without testing his warning and called to our friend on the next sled behind me to stop before getting too close. After a tense minute or so, the badger lumbered off into the woods and we could let the sleds go again. The dogs then took me on a couple minute ride of sheer terror from their excitement. Lucky for Mickey, she listened to her mother!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

100 Dogs Killed in the Headlines

100 Dogs Killed in the Headlines

We were shocked to hear that a tour company in British Columbia put down their 100 dogs last spring after a drop in business. This is so opposite of what we believe in and how we have spent the last 18 years developing our own tour business with our extended family of dogs. While the headlines are likely exaggerated, the basic fact that someone was faced with a situation of too many dogs and not enough money to feed them is a tragedy. What we can do as responsible pet owners is to set an example of what good care is. We have dedicated our entire working lives to good care. We hope that others have benefited from our example, but we can’t tell everyone else how they should behave.

Here is a glimpse of our kennel and the decisions we have made to care for our dogs in the best way we can:

Dogs have a normal lifespan of 15 years. That makes a third of their life as old dogs. When you get a dog, it is a commitment for the next 15 years. If you are in the tour business, you are eventally going to have a lot of old dogs. A commitment to keeping our old dogs healthy and happy is an example how we manage our kennel in general. With this kind of commitment it is not possible to get our operation beyond a scale that bad luck, a poor economy or poor winters could lead to a choice of having to put them down.

A third of our kennel is over 10 years old. Sled dogs love to work. If they are healthy and in shape, they can work as happily as a young dog until at least 12 or 13. Most of our older dogs are still running, although as they get older a couple need a little more time off between runs to rest. Our philosophy is that if they are not happy, we change something to make them happy. They get great veterinary care. They get an ideal geriatric training and working schedule. They get love and respect. Working and vitality give them self respect and help keep their status within their peers in the kennel. The old ones live here happily until they die of natural causes or are at the end of their life and are suffering and need to be put down. We have had many that have reached fifteen or sixteen years old! They get to run as long as they are able and happy to do it. We start our training very early in the fall and go very slow for a couple months so the older dogs can get in shape without any pain. Anyone who has been here will tell you how happy all the dogs are, even the old ones. Boulder is 12 years old and loves nothing more than to run another day. I hope I feel that good when I am eighty! People think he is a puppy, he is so enthusiastic. All the dogs that were born here or given a home here have lived here until they were very old or died of natural causes. When a dog dies here, it is a traumatic experience for everyone. The ones who have died in the past live on in our hearts. Here is a tribute to a few of them:

Andy—lived here until the age of 16. Loved running so much, that he was able to run with all the young dogs through age 14, then spent his 15th year running some of the slower trips. He got to retire in the girls area, where he was a favorite.

Scooby—lived until 16. Most of the sled dogs don’t like to live inside our house. They are happy in the kennel with their friends and family. Scooby loved the house, so she got to retire in the house, where she was happy, when she was 15. She loved to yip, howl and make a ruckus. She also had a great sense of humor and once dragged one of our guests--who did not show her the proper respect-- down into a mud hole.

Krummekakke—lived until 15. She pulled so hard! A heart murmur finally caught up with her at age 13 and she had to retire, which she hated. We still hooked her up with the over-14 crowd, and she would trot slowly down to the road to pick up our girls from the school bus. Nothing could make her happier in her forced retirement.

Petey and Elvis—lived here until age 15. They were brothers, next-door neighbors, shared a dog box when we travelled, ran together and loved each other as brothers. They were such great dogs and we miss them. In the end, they got old together, sick at the same time, and rode together on their last trip to the vet.

In the end, Mary and I held them all as life passed out of them. Those were some of the saddest moments of our lives. After spending many years with them as they pulled us around and we were able to be a part of their sled dog world, I would rather take my own life than have to face killing one of my own dogs while he is still in the prime of his life.

We have spent our entire working life committed to making our business fit the needs of our dogs. We decided a long time ago to keep our business at the scale where we could manage things ourselves. If we ever had to go out of business, we could still find homes for the dogs that we couldn’t afford to keep. As a business owner, this has meant that our business does not make much or any profit, depending on the year. The choices we have made to limit the number of dogs in the kennel, limit the number of trips in a season and per day, pay our staff to start working in September, rather than December, in order to get the necessary training for the older dogs to be happy and healthy, and a hundred other decisions that make more work and less profit for us have all been made to keep the dogs happy. Anything else would have been unacceptable. For us it would be like putting our children to work in a sweatshop. If we make a profit now, it is only through a lot of hard work and a bit of luck with the weather, but that is our choice. Most of the people who get into it feel the same way. It is too much work and not enough profit to attract anyone else but true dog lovers. Within any group there are some who do not have the judgment to make good decisions. All of the pet groups had members who do not live up to the standards of the group.

All we can do as a responsible people is control what we do ourselves and set an example of how things can be done well and hope that others follow this example. As consumers we can make choices, like buying eggs, chicken, pork and beef from a source that we know takes good care of their animals. Our society values a bargain, so we are attracted to cheap meat and eggs. The conditions that the modern market encourages for the animals are brutal. Mary’s family used to raise hogs. They were a small family farm and cared for their animals well. Now the market for pork does not allow for something so “inefficient.” When I searched for the article about the 100 sled dogs killed, the next google entry down was “60,000 chickens die in a building collapse.” What are that many birds doing in one place? Our girls raise a dozen chickens for eggs. They live in an enclosure large enough to forage outside, have social interaction, and be chickens. Although we do not feel as deeply for our chickens as we do for our dogs, it is still unthinkable that thousands of chickens are housed in one place. But that is the market we Americans have created for ourselves and have the power as consumers to change to something more humane.

We hope that all pet owners take better care their pets. We hope that other dog sports and organizations make decisions that do not encourage culling. On a broader scale, we hope that consumers make a choice to support humane conditions for the meat we eat as omnivores. We hope that the human race takes better care of the oceans. We hope that sustainable fishing practices are encouraged by consumers so we don’t ruin the world’s fishery. We hope we take better care of the earth so its inhabitants can live. I have to believe that what we do can make a difference, but the choice has to come from us as individuals.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Snow, Snow, Snow

Every day it is snowing! Our snow total is now at about 60” for the season. It is about average for this time of year. We have around two feet on the ground. The Lake keeps giving us snow, even when it is clear skies away from the Lake a few more miles. The last week or so, the sun shines through the snow and it keeps falling. The top foot is very fluffy and the trails are great! The colder temps are good for the dogs and they are loving life. All the dogs are running fast now, even the older ones.

Boulder, one of our favorites, spends all his energy on running. After the run, he goes into his house and sleeps until the next run. He is twelve years old. On the runs, he is very excited, jumping and rolling. When we stop, he barks and lunges to go again. He acts like a puppy with all of his excitement.

The dogs are now into their mid-winter life. Run, eat, sleep. For a sled dog, it is a great life. They are running about 5 days a week. Many of the days, they get to go out a couple times. Everyone is healthy and happy.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Running the Old Dogs

If you do this for long enough, you get to know a lot of dogs. They all eventually get old and we are lucky enough to know them at all stages of their lives. Many of the dogs have their best years in the later time. Their personalities are in their prime, they aren't distracted as much by being juveniles or the craziness that they go through over running when they are younger. They are still able to do almost as much running, they just are better focusing.

Our dogs get to grow up with their siblings, parents, children and grandchildren. The mother/daughter relationship and the siblings, especially brothers, seems to be the strongest. Buddy and B.B. are best friends, so were Petey and Elvis, who lived to be 15 together.

This year we had to say goodbye to Andy, who was 16. Andy was the cornerstone of our kennel. He came to us at two years old, after a very successful racing season as leader of a winning team. Andy was loved by all, especially the women, who gravitated to him. He was a great leader, thoughtful, and as cool as they get. When he was 14, he ran a thousand miles with us, never backing down or letting up. The girls in the kennel still loved him in his retirement and pestered him. Guinness, our German Shepherd always went right to him, layed down belly up, and payed his respects. Andy got to retire in the girls section, which he liked. Our two other retirees who we said goodbye to this fall were Krummekakke, 14, who was born here, and Pinto, a happy-go-lucky dog we got at 9 months old in 1997. Krummy pulled harder than any of the boys, worked hard without complaint, and had a great attitude. Pinto had his best years after 10 and was gentle and loved by children.

It never gets any easier, but we are lucky to know them. Some of the young dogs do things exactly the same as those who have passed, or sound the same, or have the same look in their eyes. There are little reminders of the old ones all around us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing: The winter season is well underway now. We are ...

Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing:

The winter season is well underway now. We are ...
: "The winter season is well underway now. We are going to start out trips the day after Christmas as planned. The snow has stacked up nic..."

The winter season is well underway now. We are going to start out trips the day after Christmas as planned. The snow has stacked up nicely and the conditions are great! Today we took out a nine-dog and a seven-dog team to break trail in about 5" of fresh snow. That extra power, plus the fresh snow made it like a powder run down a steep slope! There was snow flying everywhere as the dogs surged ahead. The sled just floated with all that power and the soft snow underneath. We led McMuffin with her mom Lucy as tutor. The siblings, Benny and Diablo (egg litter,) have been leading either with dad or mom lately and it was Micky's turn today. She did great as we figured she would. Last week, we did several 90-100 minute runs, so today we backed down to 40 minutes since they were working so hard in the new snow. At about this time in the run, they start burning fat, which doesn't quite provide as many calories to burn as what they start with. That means they slow down some. There was no slowing down today! When we got in, they were as fresh as when we started. Micky was very excited not having anyone in front of her. We let the other team pass a couple times for practice. When they are chasing, they double the power. I had to ride hard on the track brake to keep them from running up on the other team, who was breaking trail. It doesn't seem right to be braking so hard on what is already a lot of drag with the new snow, but that is what it takes. The "track" is a piece of snowmobile track that rides along on the ground in between the runners. When you want to slow them down a little, you stand on it, often using all your weight and skidding along. There is so much power with 9 dogs that they barely feel it and it only slows you a little bit.

The temps today were in the single digits, which further spurs on the dogs. They don't like to overheat and they say that -10 and below is the best for keeping the dogs cool. Single digits are a lot more comfortable for us, so I'll go with that. 15 mile per hour constant wind from running, plus temps near zero makes for a cool ride. Good day to test our our Wolfsong Wear.

The afternoon run with our old dogs was much slower. When I say old, I mean those that are over 12. We had a couple eleven/twelve year-olds on the first run with their grand kids and they refuse to show any age. The real old dogs like to go slower for another couple weeks. They are the equivalent of eighty year-olds, so they need a little more time to train before they like to go very fast. They are also very well behaved, so they get to go exploring, breaking trail, and stopping a lot while we clear trees and branches from the trail. Last week, they even got to navigate us across a beaver dam as we went wandering into some new country. I think we will keep that trail a secret. Today, we opened up one of our trails up near Pratt's Peak. There was about 16" of snow on the ground, which is hard to walk through, let alone pull a sled. Luckily for us, they love pulling. This is exactly what these older dogs like to do at this time of year. I tried running ahead of them for a hundred yards, then walking, then they passed me and I flopped down on the sled again to rest. After about two hours, they returned us home. They didn't even seem winded. All the dogs were wild this evening in the kennel and were as fresh as if they had been resting all day. When the chores were done, I stumbled in to the house and fell asleep in front of the wood stove with the cats. I remember that every December is like this and that eventually I will get in shape, too. For now, I am glad they aren't tired. Maybe some of it will rub off on me.